Inside Story

Hamas’s dark calculus

Pressure is mounting among Israel’s allies for a long-term settlement

Hamish McDonald 10 April 2024 2161 words

Palestinian statehood is “a way of building momentum towards a two-state solution,” says Australian foreign minister Penny Wong, shown here in Melbourne last month. Joel Carrett/AAP Image

If he wasn’t already a hard man when he was jailed, Yahya Sinwar was a very hard man by the time he walked out of an Israeli prison in 2011. A beneficiary of a prisoner–hostage swap, he had closely observed his Israeli guards during his twenty years of imprisonment and had become fluent in Hebrew. This knowledge of his enemy underpinned his planning of 7 October’s shocking break-out from Gaza.

First came a period of strategic deception, during which his Hamas movement appeared to moderate its armed confrontation with Israel, notably by cutting rocket attacks, in return for large-scale economic aid from Qatar. That aid deal was tacitly approved by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who saw it as a way of helping tame Hamas while deepening the split in the Palestinian leadership between the Islamists of Hamas and the secular Fatah elements running the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Then came the attack, delivered so surprisingly and with such indiscriminate violence that a harsh military response was inevitable. Sinwar then withdrew his surviving fighters, accompanied by as many Israeli hostages as they could capture. Having himself been part of a swap of 1000 Palestinian prisoners for just one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, he knew their value as bargaining chips.

Stinging at the deception, Netanyahu marshalled 50,000 soldiers and launched an air, land and sea campaign into Gaza with the aim of eliminating Hamas for good and freeing the hostages. So far, some eighty-five of the original 230 hostages have been released in a swap for Palestinian detainees. About one hundred are thought to remain alive, captive to Hamas or other militant groups.

After six months of military operations, the Israel Defence Force says it has killed about 13,000 of the estimated 30,000 fighters in Hamas’s military arm, including several senior unit commanders, for 260 soldiers of its own killed in Gaza operations. But Sinwar and other top leaders remain hidden and active.

For their part, Hamas health officials say 33,000 (among them 9000 women and 12,300 children) have died from Israeli attacks, with about 75,000 wounded and a further 7000 missing, believed buried in rubble. The figures, which seem widely accepted by international agencies and observers, don’t distinguish between militants and civilians.

The Israeli onslaught is the response Hamas expected. “We know very well the consequences of our operation on October 7,” said Khaled Mashal, a Qatar-based Hamas political leader, soon after the attack. “No nation is liberated without sacrifices.”

If any Gazan citizens don’t agree with being put up as sacrifices like this, we don’t hear from them. In the daily stream of smartphone videos of bereaved survivors pulling their dead children from the rubble we haven’t seen Hamas being blamed for the bloodshed. And perhaps Gazan journalists working for Reuters, Associated Press, Al Jazeera and other media would hesitate to ask.

It took Israeli authorities some time realise that the death tallies and horrific video images made up the narrative mostly being seen by the outside world. Israel’s own media, with a few exceptions like the liberal newspaper Haaretz, concentrated on the violence against Israelis in the October attack, showing little of the carnage inside Gaza. After some weeks, Israeli embassies and lobby groups abroad began showing video and other evidence, emphasising child murder and sexual assault, to counter sympathy for the Gazans.

The high death toll and the destruction of more than two-thirds of dwellings in Gaza was meanwhile achieving the objectives stated explicitly by Mashal and other Hamas figures. They had seen the Palestinian cause slipping away, the West Bank being steadily annexed by Jewish settlements with little effective protest by Western powers pledged since 1993 to a two-state solution.

Under Donald Trump, the US embassy had been moved from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem: he was not holding out for a two-state settlement. Trump had also brokered the Abraham accords, which brought Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states closer to Israel: support for Palestinians seemed to be weakening among these Sunni powers.

Hamas set out to shatter this trend. “We knew there was going to be a violent reaction… But we didn’t choose this road while having other options,” said one Hamas official, Basem Naim. “We have no options.” It was necessary to “change the entire equation and not just have a clash,” Khalil al-Hayya, a member of Hamas’s top leadership body, told the New York Times in Qatar. “We succeeded in putting the Palestinian issue back on the table, and now no one in the region is experiencing calm.”

Without going into the “context” sometimes used to explain or even excuse the 7 October attack, it’s useful to consider what Israel could have done instead of its all-out military response. What alternatives does it have now to pursuing it?

Cautioning voices in the early weeks made comparisons with America’s “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks. Could a more measured response, holding back the military while carefully assembling police evidence of the atrocious crimes committed by Hamas and other attackers on 7 October, have turned the moral tables? Bodies were quickly buried, and other forensic evidence lost, in the wave of anger and grief that swept Israelis.

And even then, what to do? Military experts say there is no way to eliminate an enemy hiding in cellars and tunnels in a dense urban setting without many civilian casualties. The battle of Fallujah, in 2004 during the Iraq war, and the Mosul siege against Islamic State in 2017 are comparable, except that in both cases most of the civilian population was able to flee beforehand. Even so, the Americans and Iraqis killed many of the remaining civilians and lost many soldiers, while the insurgents were not decisively eliminated.

Given the narrowness of Gaza and Egypt’s refusal to accept refugees (assuming Palestinians agreed to leave, knowing they might end up permanently expelled), the strip has hardly any space for safe refuge, and Hamas fighters would in any case move with civilians. Further slaughter of civilians would be unavoidable.

Netanyahu says Israel’s military is regrouping to push into Rafah in the south of the strip, against the Egyptian border, where 1.2 million displaced Gazans are camped and where the Israeli Defense Force claims the bulk of surviving Hamas fighters are hiding. Israeli spokesmen have suggested the IDF’s first move will be to seal the border and offer Hamas militants safe passage out to exile. If few accept, which seems likely, what then?

The operations in the north and centre of the Gaza strip have not been a clean sweep. Hamas elements remain, causing Israeli casualties, and a recent return to the large al-Shifa Hospital to ferret out hidden insurgents has resulted in more Gazan casualties. A Rafah attack and even more civilian deaths and injuries will only add weight to Sinwar’s grim calculus.

Israel’s main Western allies, meanwhile, are declaring it is time to stop — calls that intensified after a drone attack killed seven aid workers including Zomi Frankcom, an Australian. They are also preparing to deliver humanitarian aid themselves: the United States is building a new jetty and Britain will send a Royal Navy ship to land supplies.

Netanyahu is also facing mounting pressure inside Israel: for not giving priority to freeing the hostages; for failing to take responsibility, by resigning, for the security lapses that allowed the 7 October attack to happen; and for his earlier attempts to undermine judicial independence and wriggle out of corruption charges.

“If we enter into Rafah it will be a human disaster,” Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, told London’s New Statesman last week. “I don’t know how many Palestinians will die. I know that many Israelis [soldiers] will die. We have to assume rationally that Egypt will have to react. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will climb on the [border] fences.” Egypt, Jordan and other regional states will reassess relations with Israel.

Pressure of a different kind comes from within the Israeli cabinet, where extreme Zionists like national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir say they will topple Netanyahu if he baulks at attacking Rafah. Politically, he has every motive to keep up the military offensive.

At whatever point the Israeli government declares “mission accomplished” it will be left in control of 2.2 million destitute people and a Gaza in ruins, among them many Hamas sympathisers and a new generation seething for vengeance. Like the insurgent leaders in Fallujah, Sinwar might well have slipped away.

But at that point, too, Netanyahu knows that his days in power could end. The war has protected him against calls for elections or a reshuffle in the Knesset. But if it is over, and hasn’t been extended to new fronts — against Iran, against Hezbollah in Lebanon, or by settler attacks in the West Bank — Israel could then have a new leadership, probably still right-wing but perhaps less invested in Netanyahu’s policies.

That would bring an opening for Arab powers, the West, and the United Nations to assume responsibility for rebuilding and securing Gaza.

The US secretary of state Anthony Blinken has been working on a plan that would see a Gaza truce extended into a creation of a Palestinian state. The Washington Post reported in February that the ideas under discussion include the withdrawal of many, if not all, settler communities on the West Bank; a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem; the reconstruction of Gaza; and security and governance arrangements for a combined West Bank and Gaza. Israel would be offered specific security guarantees and normalised relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Britain and the European Union are said to be supportive.

And Australia? Speaking at ANU this week, foreign minister Penny Wong indicated that Canberra was party to this thinking. Instead of putting Palestinian statehood at the end of negotiations, she said, “the international community is now considering the question of Palestinian statehood as a way of building momentum towards a two-state solution.” Echoing ex–Shin Bet chief Ayalom, she argued that statehood would undermine Hamas, Iran and other extremists.

A reformed Palestinian Authority would be needed to run the state, with no role for Hamas. “Hamas is a terrorist organisation which has the explicit intent of the destruction of the state of Israel and the Jewish people,” Wong said.

(In a revised charter in 2017, Hamas said it would accept a Palestinian state within the territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 war only as a step towards complete settlement of the original pre-Israel territory. It was not opposed to Jews, it said, just Zionists. Netanyahu publicly ripped up a print-out of this less-than-reassuring charter.)

In Australia, the Coalition has quickly characterised Wong’s proposals as “rewarding terrorism,” as have various Israel-aligned lobby groups. Indeed, it will be hard to avoid Hamas getting credit. Among Palestinians, including those in the West Bank, opinion polls have shown support for Hamas and its attack has risen to 80 per cent.

In a plan circulated at the end of February, Netanyahu declared that Israel must maintain security control, including a 300-metre no-go zone at the Gaza borders and a wide corridor across the middle of the strip, and by tightly controlling the Egyptian border. He wants the UN refugee agency, UNRWA, kicked out. He proposes replacing the Hamas administration with local representatives “who are not affiliated with terrorist countries or groups and are not financially supported by them.” He continues to ridicule the idea of Palestinian statehood and says a date has been set for invading Rafah.

In other words, a Palestinian state would probably emerge only over Netanyahu’s political corpse. With the US presidential election getting nearer, Blinken’s time may also be running out.

Many Palestinians would also have to be convinced that the United States and other Western powers are sincere and determined. More than thirty years have passed since the Camp David accords set two states as the goal. Tareq Baconi, president of the board of al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, is one who argues that the moment for a two-state solution has long passed, and that the idea of partition, which ignores the 1947 expulsion of Arabs from what became Israel, is inherently unjust and impracticable. Israeli journalist Dimi Reider has long urged that creative thinking be used to turn Israel’s “apartheid” system into a single entity that gives equal rights and security to Israelis and Palestinians.

Rebuilding Gaza will take decades and tens of billions of dollars, says senior UN economist Rami Alazzeh. Not only have many homes been destroyed, but water, sewerage, electricity, schools, administrative records and financial systems have also been devastated. The population is suffering dire physical and psychological distress.

Just possibly, though, the vista for a longer-term building of peace could be opening. Whether it’s a two-state solution, a single state or one that leads to the other is a field of literature in itself. Either requires a vast effort of trust and reconciliation in the embittered Holy Land. •